What was the Battle of Bagradas River (240 BC)?

Introduction

The Battle of the Bagradas River or the Macar (c. 240 BC) was fought between Carthaginian forces and part of the combined forces of Carthage’s former mercenary armies during the Mercenary War which it used to conduct the First Punic War and those of rebelling Libyan cities.

After the forces of Hanno the Great were defeated at Utica, and failed to engage the mercenaries afterwards despite favourable conditions, Carthage raised a new army under Hamilcar Barca in Carthage. Hamilcar managed to leave Carthage despite the rebel blockade of the city and cross the Bagradas River (the ancient name of the Medjerda).

Rebel armies from besieging Utica and the camp guarded the bridge on the Bagradas River. Hamilcar Barca, by brilliant manoeuvring, defeated the combined rebel army. This was the first major Carthaginian victory of the war.

A description of the battle forms one of the grandiose set-piece scenes of Gustave Flaubert’s novel, Salammbo.

Background

Matho divided the rebel army into several detachments. Matho took two armies to cut off the cities of Utica and Hippacritae, while an army took up position along the only bridge over the River Macar linking Carthage and Utica. Spendius cut off Carthage from the mainland while rebels made Tunis their main base. The rebels had no siege weapons and decided not to assault the besieged towns, but they would from time to time advance on Carthage to terrorise the city.

With their navy shattered in the First Punic War and their mercenaries in revolt, Carthage could do little but man the walls as an immediate response to the revolt. Carthage raised an army from citizens and mercenaries, trained their cavalry, and refitted their navy, which probably took until the spring of 240 BC. Hanno the Great was put in command of the army, which included 110 elephants, but the exact number of troops is unknown. Hanno chose to relieve Utica, since rebels had cut off Carthage from the mainland; Hanno and his army were probably ferried to Utica by the Punic fleet, which was also under siege by the rebel army under Spendius.

The exact size of the rebel force is not known. Hanno initially defeated the rebels encamped near Utica and captured the rebel camp, but his negligence and the lax discipline of the Carthaginian army enabled the rebels to regroup, launch a surprise attack, capture the Carthaginian camp, and drive the Carthaginian survivors into Utica. Hanno’s army later left Utica but failed several times to engage the rebels under favourable conditions. Carthage decided to raise a new army and recalled Hamilcar Barca to command. The rebels continued their blockade of Carthage, Utica, and Hippo Acra.

Hamilcar Barca given a Command

While Hanno the Great was campaigning against the rebels, Carthage had cobbled together another army raised from citizens, rebel deserters, and newly hired mercenaries, numbering 8,000 foot, 2,000 horse and 70 elephants. Hamilcar Barca was given command of this force, and he spent some time training his soldiers. Carthage made no fresh move against the rebels. Hanno and his army continued watching the two rebel camps at Hippo Acra. The rebel army under Spendius, numbering 15,000, was blockading Utica. Another 10,000 strong rebel army was encamped near the only bridge across the River Bagradas, the exact location is not known. Note that the course of the Bagradas river changed numerous times since the 3rd century BC, therefore the battle likely took place south of the current mouth of the river.

Once his army was properly trained, Hamilcar did not attack the rebels blockading Carthage head on. Instead, he sought to gain the freedom to manoeuvre and fight the rebels on his own terms. The rebel base at Tunis and rebel dispositions, which probably barricaded the passes on the hills between Djebdl Ammar and Djebel Nahli, cut Carthage off from the mainland. Hamilcar had observed that, when the wind blew from a certain direction, a sandbar was uncovered on the river mouth, which made the Bagradas River fordable.

Hamilcar marched his army out of Carthage at night along the north shore of the isthmus towards the mouth of the Bagradas River. His movement was not detected by the rebels and at the first opportunity he crossed the Bagradas River along the sandbar. Hamilcar’s army was free to manoeuvre in the African countryside.

The Forces

Carthaginian citizens normally wore armour, greaves, and Greek style helmets, carried a round shield, long spear, and sword, and fought in phalanx formation. Carthaginian citizens and the Libyo-Phoenicians provided disciplined, well-trained cavalry equipped with thrusting spears and round shields. Any mercenaries in Hanno the Great’s army may have resembled the rebels they were facing. Carthage also used elephants, probably African Forest and Indian elephants as shock troops. The elephants were ridden by specially trained riders, some of whom may have come from ancient India or Syria.

The rebel army had Libyans, Iberians, Gauls, Greeks, and probably Thracians and Scythians present, along with Campanians and Roman deserters. The Libyan heavy infantry fought in close formation, armed with long spears and round shields, wearing helmets and linen cuirasses. The light Libyan infantry carried javelins and a small shield, same as Iberian light infantry. The Iberian infantry wore purple bordered white tunics and leather headgear. The heavy Iberian infantry fought in a dense phalanx, armed with heavy throwing spears, long body shields, and short thrusting swords. Campanian, Sardinian, Sicel, and Gallic infantry fought in their native gear, but often were equipped by Carthage. Sicels, Sardinians, and other Sicilians were equipped like Greek Hoplites, as were the Sicilian Greek mercenaries. Balearic Slingers fought in their native gear.

Numidians provided superb light cavalry armed with bundles of javelins and riding without bridle or saddle, and light infantry armed with javelins. Iberians and Gauls also provided cavalry, which relied on the all out charge.

The Battle

Hamilcar’s army completed the river crossing unmolested and undetected by the rebels, and then moved towards the rebel camp near the bridge. Spendius led 15,000 troops from Utica to confront Hamilcar, while 10,000 rebels from the camp near the bridge also advanced towards Hamilcar’s position. Caught in a pincer movement, Hamilcar started to march north. The two rebels forces joined up and began to march north on a parallel course. The army of Spendius outnumbered Hamilcar’s army two to one, so he could afford to form his army in two lines, although the rebels had no elephants and nothing is known of their cavalry. Spendius extended his left flank to the north in an attempt to outflank the Carthaginians. His intention was to have his right flank stop the Carthaginian movement north while his main force attacked and pushed the Carthaginian army towards the river.

Hamilcar’s Manoeuvre

Spendius’ plan was foiled by Hamilcar Barca’s brilliant counter-manoeuvre, which enabled his outnumbered and seemingly outmanoeuvred army to emerge victorious in the ensuing battle. Exactly what Hamilcar did is not clearly known and the issue has been much discussed. It is known that Hamilcar pretended to retreat, which caused the rebels to launch a disorderly attack, while Hamilcar got his soldiers in battle formation to crush the rebels.

About Turn

According to one line of thought, the Carthaginian army’s order of march had the War Elephants leading the column, with the light troops and cavalry behind the elephants. Heavy infantry formed the rearguard, and the whole army marched in a single file in battle formation.

When Hamilcar observed Spendius extending his battle line to outflank the Carthaginian right flank and cut off the Carthaginian army’s line of advance, he ordered his elephants to turn right, away from the rebel army. The cavalry and light infantry did the same after the elephants, while the heavy infantry continued to move forward. The rebels mistook this for a withdrawal and rushed forward to engage. This wild charge disordered their battle line, some rebel units moving ahead of others.

The elephants then again turned right, followed by the Carthaginian light infantry and cavalry, so they were now moving south. Parallel to the heavy infantry in the opposite direction The Carthaginian infantry, moving northwards, stopped, turned left and formed a battle line, facing the onrushing rebels. The elephants, light infantry and cavalry are now positioned behind the Carthaginian heavy infantry battle line.

The Carthaginian elephants, light infantry and cavalry again turned right, divided into two divisions, and took their position on both flanks of the Carthaginian heavy infantry. The rebel formations no longer outflanked the Carthaginian army, and a solid battle line now confronted a disorderly rebel army.

Triple Column

According to another line of thought, Hamilcar’s army marched in three separate columns, The war elephants were placed nearest the rebel army. The cavalry and light infantry was in the middle, while the heavy infantry was posted furthest from the rebel army.

As the three Carthaginian columns moved north, Spendius extended his left flank to overlap the Carthaginian formation and outflank and cut off the Carthaginians. Hamilcar’s army halted its march seeing this development. The cavalry and light infantry, and the elephants turned right, then moved through gaps in the heavy infantry formation. The rebels mistook this as a Carthaginian withdrawal and rushed forward to attack.

The Carthaginian heavy infantry next turned right, closed gaps and formed a battle line to face the rebels. The elephants, cavalry and light infantry split into two divisions, and moved into position on the flanks of the Carthaginian heavy infantry. The rebel formations no longer outflanked the Carthaginian army, and a solid battle line confronted a disorderly rebel formation.

A Punic Victory

As the numerically superior but outgeneralled rebels closed and confronted the solid Carthaginian battle line, pandemonium ensued. Instead of hitting the Carthaginians with an orderly formation of infantry en masse, some rebel units engaged the Carthaginians before other units could arrive in support, while others stopped to regroup. As a result, some rebel units were thrown back by the Carthaginians, or as some of the units stopped their charge, the units following them ploughed straight into their back. Battle cohesion was lost and, before the rebels could reorder and regroup, Carthaginian cavalry and infantry charged the entangled rebel units. Scores of rebels were killed, and as the Carthaginian infantry followed up the cavalry and elephant charge, the rebel army broke and scattered, having lost 6,000 of their number. Carthaginian pursuit secured 2,000 prisoners.

Aftermath and Legacy

The surviving rebels fled either to Utica or to their camp beside the bridge. Hamilcar, after mopping up the battle field, advanced on the rebel camp, forcing the rebels to flee to Tunes, where they were reunited with their commander Spendius. Hamilcar then moved towards Utica, forcing the rebels to flee to Hippo Acra.

The rebel blockade of Utica was broken. Hamilcar had the choice to join up with Hanno and try to lift the rebel blockade of Hippo Acra as well. Instead he began to mop up the lands beside the Bagradas River, by force or diplomacy asserting Carthaginian authority over the rebel Libyan towns, thus cutting off the rebels from sources funds, recruits and provisions and ensuring Carthage can tap the same resources.

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